Cong. Chris Murphy (D-CT 5), just returned from a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan with a six-member Congressional Delegation (CODEL) led by Cong. Steve Lynch (D-MA 9), provided a sobering assessment of U.S.. intervention in both countries at a Slade Middle School forum on Saturday, April 21st.
Standing beside posters showing the growing costs of the war and an escalating insurgency, Murphy said the “life changing” trip reinforced his position in favor of a clear Iraq exit strategy now contained in legislation adopted by both the House and Senate.
Bush and the Congress are now at odds over the “Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Health and Iraq Accountability Act” that sets a July 1 deadline for meeting benchmarks. If benchmarks are not met, redeployment of U.S. troops would begin within 180 days. Bush vows a veto over the timetable and falsely accuses Democrats of not supporting the troops.
Murphy confessed to a rookie congressman’s awe about being part of the congressional fact-finding trip. But his command of the facts and analysis made for a compelling case against Bush and Cheney’s intransigence.
Iraq and Afghanistan pose two very different challenges, according to Murphy. The fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan is difficult. Unlike Iraq, sectarian violence is not rampant and the country possesses a greater sense of nationalism. Murphy, however, worries that the U.S. may be “under-committed” in Afghanistan where post 9/11 efforts to thwart terrorism began.
In Iraq, Murphy and his colleagues held a meeting with General David Petraeus at which the U.S. military leader candidly told lawmakers that he could not say whether the latest “troop surge” was working or would work at all. Murphy said President Bush, who met with him and CODEL members in the Oval Office following the trip, remains “unreformed” and as obstinate as ever about his war without end.
Murphy pointedly added that those who think the U.S. can now easily extract itself from the quagmire are only fooling themselves.
There was an unspoken frustration at this first Congressional forum held by Murphy in New Britain. One woman, who jeopardized her nursing education to protest the Vietnam War, said the protests a generation ago had more of an impact than the protests of today. Others pointed to the Draft and Selective Service in the 1960s that made the war toll more of a shared sacrifice and led to a more potent anti-war effort. Cong. Murphy noted that this war involves sacrifice only among the soldiers and families who are facing multiple tours of duty. He put the number of troops who have been back more than once at 170,000. Those tours are stretching Guard forces and regular troops to the limit, but are necessary to patrol the streets of Baghdad and do for the Iraqis what they are unable to do for themselves.
Much on the minds of the New Britain audience was the neglect in the delivery of services for returning veterans. Murphy, noting the well publicized deficiencies in outpatient care at military hospitals, said that it takes a minimum of 18 months for returning soldiers to obtain veteran’s benefits and services. It shouldn’t take that long, he said, pointing out that Congress’ reauthorizing bill for Iraq and Afghanistan (HR 1591) includes an additional $1.5 billion for veterans.
The Bush Administration may be penny pinchers for veterans but they have been most generous to some of their friends. Among Murphy’s “costs of the war” is $10 billion which is “the amount of Iraq reconstruction funds currently unaccounted for.” Among the companies receiving war profits has been Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. Halliburton’s engineering subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, was awarded $7 billion in no-bid contracts early in the “Iraqi Freedom” campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Murphy, a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, indicated that Congress is uncovering “layers of contracting upon contracting” wherein no-bid contractors are skimming funds and sub-contracting actual work for Iraq projects to others.
House-approved legislation (HR 1362)known as the “Accountability In Contracting Act” would change federal acquisition law to end these “abuse-prone” contracts that have proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is opposed by the Bush administration but has gained new momentum with the takeover of Congress by the Democrats. Ironically, the measure has now gone to the Homeland Security Committee chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut for further action in the Senate.
Having gained firsthand knowledge of the Iraqi situation, Cong Murphy goes back to Capitol Hill to press for enactment of an Iraq policy that does not depend on an unending presence of U.S. troops. It is doubtful, however, that he and Democrats in Washington can succeed in the short term so long as Bush has enough allies in the Congress to maintain a status quo that fuels the insurgency, drains our resources and makes us no safer. Murphy and the Democratic majority now need Republicans to stand up to Bush and Cheney to change direction in Iraq before the President’s term ends.